Soon after the El Paso County Courthouse (now the Pioneers Museum) opened in 1903, the building's lofty clock tower became a favorite perch for local photographers. Multiple images in Penrose Library's digital photographs show the central business district, as well as early aerial photos.
What we see is a glorious, bustling, compact city. Streets are lined with low-rise buildings housing businesses of every description. It's a city planner's dream: walkable, human-scaled, diverse.
Close-in residential districts surround the city's core. Locally owned downtown businesses include department stores, groceries, hardware stores, dress shops, bookstores, shoe stores, restaurants, hotels, bars, pawn shops and liquor stores.
There are two things the downtown lacked: parking lots and parking structures. Gen. William Palmer's broad streets provided room for diagonal parking, so the city and automobiles coexisted amiably for many decades.
Then came the locust years, as auto-enabled suburbs drew businesses and residents away. Buildings were torn down, and the once-vibrant business district transformed into a characterless nothingburger, anchored by undistinguished medium-rise office buildings.
Progress? Call it regress. When the dust of demolition settled, we were left with parking lots. Lots and lots of parking lots.
The city's first stake was driven in 1871 at what is now the southeast corner of Pikes Peak and Cascade avenues. For the next 100 years, the half-block bordered by Pikes Peak, Cascade and Colorado Avenue was fully developed, with businesses, offices, even a magnificent opera house. It all came down in 1973, and nothing has replaced it.
East on Pikes Peak, the story continues. There's a quarter-block lot on the north side of the street between Tejon Street and Nevada Avenue, and a vacant half-block between Nevada and Weber Street. Several blocks south, the vacant 1965 Colorado Springs Medical Center building is adjacent to a half-block parking lot that once served its tenants.
If downtown's hesitant renaissance is to continue, the parking lots have to go. But it won't be easy; the owners have no incentive to build anything.
Consider the Pikes Peak/Cascade lot. Most of it was acquired from U.S. Bank in 1997 for $2 million by an investment group linked to Griffis/Blessing. The local economy was booming; investors may have envisioned soon throwing up a gleaming, 30-story high-rise that would become the city's signature building.
Nearly two decades later, the time still hasn't come — but investors can afford to be patient because flat parking is a principal permitted use downtown. The half-block lot has more than 100 spaces, which should easily bring in enough to cover the $28,000 annual tax bill, pay for liability insurance and, if necessary, help service any outstanding loans on the property.
But downtown can't wait five, 10 or 45 years for something to happen.
A city whose center is defined by parking lots will always feel abandoned, disorganized, unsafe and undesirable. The time has come for city government to take drastic action, and remove flat parking as a principal permitted use in central downtown. Along with the stick, a big carrot: Offer parking lot owners substantial tax breaks and/or regulatory relief if they get off their butts and build something.
The late Jennifer Moulton, the Denver's visionary planning director in the 1990s, understood this dynamic. In a 1999 paper, Moulton described the steps that Denver took to preserve and energize its downtown.
"In the early '90s," Moulton wrote, "LoDo had not yet fully emerged as a real estate development opportunity, and owners who had proclaimed the death of downtown were hunkering down to wait for the next office cycle. Buildings in the lower and mid-downtown area were threatened with demolition as owners sought reduced property taxes and parking income in the interim. In 1991, Denver changed its landmark preservation ordinance to extend the previous 90-day delay on demolition of a landmarked building to 12 months. ... [This change,] together with the elimination of surface parking as a use by right, halted the practice of demolishing vacant or under-performing buildings in favor of surface parking lots."
We're a little late to the game, but no matter. It's long past time for construction cranes to rise again at the corner of Cascade and Pikes Peak — and think of how pleased General Palmer would be!